The Defense of an Undecided Voter – Part 4

My last two posts discussed my preference for President Obama’s on social matters and Governor Romney’s on economic. I expressed some doubt in both categories, primarily related to my skepticism about the President’s real role in those two roles. Today, I’ll talk about the one area where I think the President makes the most difference – foreign policy.

In domestic policy, the President is hamstrung and checked and balanced at every turn – Congress makes the laws, the Supreme Court exercises scrutiny on their interpretation and the States have overlapping authority in nearly any given area of economic and social policy. As a man, the President is certainly more powerful in these realms than any other given individual, but the power of the Presidency is not even close to the cumulative power of everyone that ISN’T the President.

In foreign policy, that’s not really the case. The President can act all but unilaterally – the courts have been entirely unwilling to check the “political branches” on matters of national security and foreign policy and Congress for the last 20 years or so has essentially given the President and the DOD a blank check in anything overseas. About the only place that Congress plays a substantial role is on DOD budgetary matters, which affects foreign policy in the long run, but only in the VERY long run.

The President is pretty much driving the foreign policy bus, so to me, it’s by far the most important issue to get right in Presidential politics. Whether for good or ill, I think it’s impossible to say that we would have invaded Iraq if Al Gore had been President – that decision was 100% the product of who was in the Oval Office.

That same example, though, shows the pitfalls of relying on foreign policy in deciding who to vote for – there was nothing in the 2000 election campaign to suggest that the vote was going to decide whether or not we would invade Iraq or not. Neither Bush nor Gore was particularly hawkish in the campaign.

As the debate showed, the two candidates are, and almost always will be, close together on foreign policy – the President matters a great deal in foreign policy, but it’s questionable whether or not a DIFFERENT President would make a big difference. The analogy I’ve heard before is that the President is sitting down in the middle of a chess game that’s already in progress – he is fairly constrained in what he can really do. If Romney gets elected, he will very quickly get inundated with advice from a huge bureaucracy of Generals, intelligence analysts, Ambassadors, etc. – a President CAN turn the ship of state, but for the most part they don’t and won’t – they’ll listen to the same advisers, get the same advice and make the same decisions.

Except. Except. Except. There are two places where a President will matter.

The first can be loosely termed as “leadership” or “tone”. We got into Iraq because Bush ran the White House in a certain way – one that made it clear what result he wanted, and discouraged dissenting voices. I’m sure that if you just looked at the advice and intelligence that came into the White House in 2003, you would have thought there were WMDs too – because of the way the decision was made, dissent was never heard.  It’s difficult to measure, but to be an effective President means encouraging dissent, encouraging an effective decision making process and select diverse, intelligent advisors.

The second is of course the “gut” calls – when the advisers are split down the middle and the buck stops at the Resolute desk. From all accounts, the bin Laden raid fits firmly in this category – there was NOT a solid consensus whether or not it was really bin Laden, much less whether or not a SEAL raid was the way to go. The President was the final arbiter of a) whether or not the intelligence was enough to act and b) which of a menu of options to use (Tomahawk, drone strike, commando raid, etc.)

On this front, I have to favor Obama, if for no other reason than on a “devil you know” basis. I have overall been very pleased with the President’s performance in foreign affairs. He has struck an effective balance between restraint and backbone – one one hand, we don’t want to end up in a quagmire, but we also can’t be afraid of using ANY force. The invasion of Libya in 2010 seemed to me to be pretty much exactly the right balance of strength and restraint.*

Romney, of course, might be equally effective – but I have no way of knowing. For most of the campaign he’s been way too hawkish for my taste – he’s moderated somewhat, but he’s given me reason to doubt.

From the perspective of an active duty military member, the question I ask is: Who is more likely to deploy me and my million-plus colleagues in uniform effectively? Who is more likely to get us involved in a conflict that results in men and women dying for no good reason?

On that one, I have to trust Obama marginally more – not because I have particular reason to believe Romney CAN’T make the wrong decision, but he hasn’t proven to me yet that he WILL.

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The Defense of an Undecided Voter – Part 3

I’m still undecided, though my absentee ballot needs to get sent sooner rather than later, so I should probably start to figure something out. In the mean time, I’ll keep breaking down the sources of my remaining doubts. As I mentioned last week, I strongly favor President Obama on social policy, so today I’ll talk about economic policy.

While I’ve gone back and forth on this one, I think I generally come down in favor of  Romney on economic issues. Romney’s record in Mass. was generally fairly centrist, so I’m hoping* that he will be able to work with what’s likely to be a divided Congress and come to some sort of compromise that will at least BEGIN to handle our long term debt issue (though that is likely to be the work of the next couple decades worth of Presidents).

I’m somewhat skeptical of Romney’s plans for tax policy, though on its surface, I like his plan to put a cap on the amount of deductions people are allowed to take. I don’t know enough about it to know if there are some loopholes, but in principles it’s a good way to start to raise revenue. There are too many loopholes with too many vested interests defending them to go after one-by-one, so it’s probably going to take something wholesale like that.

On the spending side of things, entitlements need a look taking a look at, though I have strong doubts that either party has the fortitude to do what really needs to be done. Romney/Ryan will likely go after unemployment benefits/food stamps/etc., while I doubt Obama will go after any – when what we absolutely need to do is start changing the retirement age for benefits like Social Security and Medicare. The biggest wealth differentials in this country are between the old and the young right now, and these programs were created when life expectancy was WAY lower than it currently is – these programs simply weren’t crated with the current ages in mind.

One relatively big beef I have with Romney/Ryan, though, is there obsession with cutting entitlement programs, particularly Food Stamps. A huge percentage of Food Stamps end up going to children. From a marginal utility standpoing,  I do not think that the government can spend a dollar better than by using it to buy food for the poorest of children – no child should suffer because there parents are too poor to pay for the necessities. The conservative counter to this is frequently some version of “Oh, these parents just using their kids as an excuse not to work – if we cut food stamps, then they’ll work and the kid will be fine.” I simply do not believe this – even if that’s true, in an economy where unemployment is 8% plus, quite clearly there are many cases where the choice is between giving a family Food Stamps or having them go hungry  for hundreds of thousands of children. I refuse to live in an America where a child goes hungry, and I sincerely doubt charity can fill a hole that is measured in hundreds of billions of dollars.

A couple caveats, as always:

I have strong doubts about the President’s real influence on the economic process, particularly in the short term. My opinion about President Obama has essentially nothing to do with the last 4 years – I think he’s actually done a pretty good job with a bad hand. I just have more doubt about his political ability/inclination to handle the long-term structural issues that need to be addressed (and addressed soon).

My real doubts, though, come from my own knowledge gap. The economy and budgeting process is essentially the most complicated thing short of the Large Hadron Collider. Even people who know a LOT about the economy disagree about what we need to do and how we need to do it, so me (knowing very little), is very unlikely to know which candidate will be the right choice.

As I mentioned before – a vote is a prediction. It’s a statement that “I think this candidate will be better for this issue than that other candidate.” Even after you’ve parsed the different candidates policy choices (a difficult task in even the most transparent campaigns) – you’re still stuck with not really knowing what they’ll be able to get done in office, or what that will do for you in the long run.

So yeah, Romney on the economy – I think he’s better positioned to handle our long term structural problems, and I think his positions on entitlements are unlikely to gain much real traction. That said, my caveats discount this view fairly steeply, so I’m not sure where this leads me. Tomorrow, foreign policy….

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OTI Podcast: How I Met Your Mother of All Earthquakes

I’m back at the Overthinking It Podcast, talking about Cloud Atlas (even though I haven’t seen it) and Frankenstorm (even though I’m as far away as you can get from it). Take a listen and tell your friends about this cool thing you heard.

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The Defense of an Undecided Voter – Part 2

This week has been busier than I thought (with law school and what-not), so I’m a bit behind, but as promised, I’m going to explain why I’m still undecided, as viewed through the lens of social, economic and foreign policy. I’ve got an outline due in a few hours, so I’ll start with a relatively easy one – social policy.

Purely from the standpoint of “Who do you agree with?” on social policy, I prefer President Obama pretty much hands down. On issues like gay marriage, abortion, drug policy, etc., I think the government has no place. People should be allowed to do what they want with and to their own bodies, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other people’s rights.

With that said, mere agreement is not neccesarily enough to sway my vote. The President doesn’t, and in my view shouldn’t, have that much to do with policy in those matters (with one notable exception). Overturning DOMA* will take either an act of Congress or a ruling from the Supreme Court. The vast majority of social policy is dictated either by the States or by the Congress through legislation.

I will, however, give the President a lot of credit for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – that was a law that was both stupid from a standpoint of military policy and unjust from a standpoint of equal rights, and the repeal was long past due. While Congress actually instituted the ban, clearly the support of the President and the SECDEF was crucial in its passage – the bully pulpit is still alive and well.

For the most part, thought, the President’s social views really only comes in through judicial nominations – and I’m not convinced that an un-elected judiciary is the best place to be making policy like that. I’m still new on law school, so have not landed firmly in a “textualist” “originalist” or “living Constitution” camp, but my inclination is that the words of laws should be more than wind – judges should be not allowed to substitute their own judgment for the legislature, except where the law passed is clearly in violation of higher law (Federal, Constitution, etc.)

So social policy comes down for Obama, but I’m not quite sure exactly how much weight to give it. I had a lengthy debate with the Elder Fox about economic policy yesterday, and my views on that aren’t nearly so definite, so hopefully I’ll have a post up about that a little later today.

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The Defense of an Undecided Voter – Part 1

I’ve seen in several places the argument or assumption that an undecided voter is necessarily uninformed – that the differences between the two candidates are just so obvious that anyone remotely paying attention should already have figured out who they’re supporting.

I take a little bit of offense to these statements, as I am, after all, still undecided. My dozen or so loyal followers* (Hi guys!) know that I’ve been blogging for just over a year, and have been following electoral news pretty much compulsively for the last 18 months or so. I wager that I am far more politically engaged than the average voter who HAS made up his or her mind, so this SNL sketch aside (which I actually love), it’s possible to be both undecided and informed.

I have a couple problems keeping me from coming down firmly on one side or another. Even if I assume that it’s possible to decipher exactly what policies the candidates do and do not support, I agree with President Obama on some issues and Governor Romney on others.

Broadly speaking, we can probably group most issues under the umbrellas of social, economic and foreign policy, though that leaves big, important issues like immigration and the environment without a comfortable place to sit. Even assuming those broad categories are useful, I see why no reason why I need to align my social beliefs with my economic beliefs, or why the candidate that I prefer as a foreign policy candidate should the same candidate I prefer as an economic candidate. Deciding how much to weigh each of those issues is relatively difficult.

Late, I’ll delve into those three policy areas with more detail and explain why even within categories I’m having difficulty making up my mind. Before I start, though, I’ll deal with the most obvious retort to this post: “Quite whining and make up your mind.” Here’s the thing – don’t we have campaigns for a reason? Don’t we pick a particular day for a reason? If I’m still equivocating on November 7th, then you can call me a whiner, but until then, I think a little indecision is a good thing – you wouldn’t scream at a jury to make up their mind while there are still witnesses to be called.

I also have strong doubts about the ability of any President to make that much of a difference in areas like the economy, and have even stronger doubts about my own ability to predict which candidate actually would make a difference if given a chance. Prediction is hard, and voting is essentially a prediction “I think the country will be better off if Candidate X is elected than if Candidate Y is elected.” Making that decision involves a complicated calculus weighing a) the candidates positions b) the effect of those positions c) the likelihood that they will actually be able to enact those positions into policy and d) the likelihood that the conditions required for those policies to work remain in place.

With that said, I do have positions and opinions about President Obama and Governor Romney and their likelihood of success in different areas of politics. So in a series of posts in each policy area (social, economic and foreign relations), I’ll explain where I come down personally, and why the factors of this election make it hard for me to make up my mind.

*: I’ve also seen the argument that undecided voters are really just “attention whores” who have made up their mind but want to pretend they haven’t for sake of appearances. Defense against that claim is essentially impossible, like saying “I’m not in denial.” You’ll just have to trust me when I claim that I am, in fact, undecided.


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Argo and Other Things (for 90 minutes…)

I’m back at Overthinking It… only this time in Podcast form! I was on the OTI podcast this weekend, talking about Argo, Graceland, GPS coordinates and a grab bag of other topics in a 90-minute pop culture extravaganza.

Overthinking Podcast Ep 225: We’re Going to Wasteland


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Good news for Counter-piracy

Piracy is trending down, due to a combination of more effective international counter piracy efforts, widespread use of anti-piracy measures by shipping firms and due to changing conditions on the ground in Somalia. All of these are good things. Add one more to the pile, because it just became a little easier for international forces to take pirates captured at sea to trial in nearby Kenya:

Kenya’s Court of Appeal says the country’s courts have jurisdiction to try Somali pirates caught on international waters.

In 2010, the High Court ruled that Kenyan courts can only deal with offenses that take place within the territorial jurisdiction of the country.

On Thursday The Court of Appeal said universal jurisdiction allowed all states to prosecute pirates despite location of the offense and nationality of perpetrators. The judges say piracy off the coast of Somalia has affected economies of many nations, including Kenya, and they must ensure criminals have no safe haven.

The international community has depended on countries like Kenya and the Seychelles to prosecute pirates who attack off East Africa. Somalia has been in conflict for two decades, and piracy is one of few opportunities to make money.

One of the biggest hurdle to CP efforts has been the lack of countries willing to prosecute pirates – hopefully Kenya will take this ruling and open the prosecutions back up (and hopefully the international community will realize that trying/imprisoning pirates isn’t cheap and send reimbursement their way).


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